Tag Archives: media

Profitable Discourse: NBC’s “Education Nation”

There have been quite a few ads for this new segment/series on NBC stations. While conversation about the state of education is great, what struck me was that this feels like a corporation seizing upon a sexy topic–one of concern for many citizens–and capitalizing on it. After all, news conglomerates are businesses. For-profit businesses. To get advertisers to buy space, they have to ensure that people will consume the news they disseminate. Hey, people seem to be worried about education–let’s create a series, website, and blog that speaks to those concerns.  That’ll get them to watch! And how handy: a catchy, rhyming title. They’ll associate our name, our logo, our news brand, with what matters to them! 

Discourse (much of which has been created or at least fueled by the mass-media, let’s not forget) is yet another opportunity to build the brand. By associating NBC with what is perceived to be a social good–public education–capitalism wins again. These ongoing, mediated conversations promise to “make a difference” to viewers and participators…and to the corporation’s pocketbook. It’s profit masquerading as a practical response to national discourse and those topics that are latched onto in waves of hand-wringing and fist-clenching. Capitalism in the trappings of populism.

To piggy-back on the idea of public discourse, the fact that national news corporations now deal with broad topics of concern is symptomatic of how our society interacts. We think of ourselves as a nation. Locality is still there, but we pay overwhelming attention to things that are perceived to concern our state, our country as a whole. The village we belong to has grown. Our community has become televised, and our neighborhood is now online. These are gross over-generalizations, of course, and it would be worth exploring whether or not this move to exponentially larger circles of community and the ways in which they are mediated is mirrored by a refocusing on ever-smaller local identities, such as towns and neighborhoods. As we strengthen our national identity, do we simultaneously cling to the micro-concerns of our local identity?

Either way, news corporations have us covered. Oh boy, are we covered. They know what we care about, what will make us watch, and they know how to get us to care about things, as well. Perhaps this move shouldn’t be derided too much, as it probably will lead to productive conversations about how to improve the educational system, whether those conversations lead to actual positive changes or not. It’ll be interesting to monitor this series and its partner website to see what NBC decides to focus on. And it’s always worth looking critically at things from different perspectives, especially if they seem oddly benevolent.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media

Meta-Topic: Animals

Perhaps this should have been posted from the get-go. Come to think of it, there should have been a little series of these “what-to-expect-categorically” posts, in order to orient the focus of this blog. But whatever. It’s happening now.

One of the main topics this blog explores (or will come to explore in more depth as it continues) is that of non-human animals in culture. This is broad, obviously, so it might be good to lay out in general terms what posts under this category might deal with in the future. The theoretical orientations and analytic tendencies will be mainly anthropological, and a little radical in cases where I become un-tethered to scholarly moorings. (Yes, we’re doing nautical metaphors, now. Animals can go on ships, too. Just roll with those waves and sail on.)

People incorporate other animals into their lives to different degrees in various ways. So too, cultures as a whole. This happens on different levels, such as discursive, physical interaction, and broad mental categorizations that can become verbally rationalized when the topic comes up. I hope to have several different series in the future that use non-human animals as their center to explore various culture issues–as well as topics that focus on animal-human relationships specifically. Indeed, there are many avenues to explore, and I just hope these forays into fauna will be as interesting for readers as they are for this writer to think about.

One can explore the tendency to personify or give human qualities to nonhuman animals–especially for use in allegories and literature in general. But this also happens everyday when people talk about animals. Or talk for them.

Another main topic I’d like to explore as this blog continues is the ways in which consumer culture uses various animals to sell things. Closely related is the use of animal imagery or culturally constructed characteristics identified with certain nonhuman animals and how they are used to signify various things. Semiotics for everyone!

Nonhuman animals can be implicated in political discourse, used to embody gender norms, symbolize anything you can think of, and deployed as terms of abuse (thank you, Edmund Leach). They are everywhere and nowhere, and we can even look at issues of agency (see the last post and a particularly good comment from the author of Instruct/Deconstruct). They are differentially valued, thought about, and interacted with based on a complex system of categories enacted daily in cultural practice, and no one animal means the same thing in two situations, for two people, in two cultures. I could go on about this for days, so perhaps I should just end by saying that if you like thinking about animals, stay tuned…

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Filed under Animals, Meta

Beef So Fresh It’s a Cash Cow

Turning life into food isn't free

First, a disclaimer–this is neither well-thought out nor well written. Also, here is the NPR article that goes with this picture. Photo credit is Greg Zabilski/ABC. Now to the somewhat predictable spin-off rant:

The host of this show (human pictured above) apparently wants people to think about what they are eating. And to think about it as a good American consumer would: in terms of how much it costs. This is veiled in the guise of encouraging more healthy eating (does cheaper automatically equal less healthy?). I’m not criticizing his project as a whole, just pointing to a few implications it has, or, more accurately, the delicious implications of the image above. (I’m also not criticizing the NPR story, which is focused on different issues and is worth reading for itself, especially if you want to know more about the TV show that this image is from.)

I frequently (some might say obsessively) use bovines to explore a lot of cultural issues, and this image and its accompanying article smacks you in the face with a few of them: animals-as-food, commodification of life, and placing monetary value on the spoils of death, to name a few. This cow is being used as a powerful device to illustrate to people how much they are paying for which cuts of meat. It is powerful, for one reason, because the connection between the live animal and its edible products are normally not illustrated so graphically. Cash value has been physically inscribed on a live animal that will, ostensibly, be killed and eaten. This cow stands for the idea of nutritional value for one’s money, and stands for all the beef that Americans consume. (I do wonder if the show at all addresses how value is added to cattle and the various cuts of meat they become…and this reminds me that I should really re-read and do a book review of Shukin’s Animal Capital.)

Honestly, I just love how blatantly monetary value is inscribed on this animal–it becomes a thing, a commodity, right before our eyes, even as it continues to embody movements that might be construed as independent and life-like. But this animals isn’t given a subjectivity of its own. Rather, it is made an object of education; a symbol of itself as a heavily used commodity in the U.S., of American eating and spending habits, of many things, just in this one image. The human next to it uses the animal and makes it mean certain things for his audience; lays his hand on its shoulder as if its body were a blackboard–as, indeed, it has been visually manipulated to become. It is on a leash, and at any moment the man can pick up the other end and have this mobile blackboard tethered to him–the man is in control of this might-as-well-be-dinner educational tool. (Unrelated note: wtf is with the washing machine in the right-hand corner?) This animal is marked for consumption–both as a commodity and as an eventual collection of differentially priced food items.

I just find this all very interesting, is all, and when I come across images such as this one which so clearly capture America’s relationship with food animals and consumerism, I squeal a little inside and have to share it. Mmm…semiotics!

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Bovinity Infinity, Commodification, Contemporary, Media, Television and Movies

A Fragment: Practice Makes Meaning(?)

I had this half-baked thought back in March, when I read the headline of a news story about the possible impending government shut-down in the U.S. It’s sort of still relevant, topically, and the argument I jump to from the topic is almost always relevant, so here we go:

In the news story, the possibility of the (then) current government shut-down was automatically compared to that of 1996. Maybe this is a valid parallel, but it might not be. The contexts of the shut-downs, the possible causes, will necessarily be very different. They are located in different socio-historical moments, after all. But in mass-mediated news, even publicly-funded news outlets, those contextual details get lost in favor of familiar narratives and neatly packaged parallels. And then future historical narrative–as presented by the media, at least, and perhaps high school text books, will remember the parallel and constructed similarities of the incidents, if it remembers these two incidents at all. (Maybe they won’t–maybe they’ll stress the differences. I can’t predict the future. But the two incidents will, in all likelihood, be compared and packaged together in some way. The will reference one another and thus imply similarity.)

The larger point is that, regardless of context, political discourse and the way in which it is structured, both internally and as a genre with all its connections and within the wider culture–and importantly, the ways in which it is mediated to various segments of society (pundits, the public, the politicians themselves, etc)–makes these instances meaningful. In this case, the mediated political discourse makes the parallel a talking point, maybe even an accepted truth, because of the way that political discourse and the media frame events–stripping them of context to make that neat parallel. (This argument just got dangerously circular, but hopefully it’ll pull out.)

Other types of narrative and rhetorical tricks and performatives exist as well, parallelism is just one of them. One easily understood and accepted by the masses, perhaps because it is so often relied upon to make the news familiar and digestible. To make the masses return to particular outlets for their updates, to make students remember things in history classes. Familiar narrative structures win over the unexpected and un-categorizable. The latter is just an unexplainable horror until it can be narratively stretched and twisted until it fits into a safely shaped box.

Anyway, one point I want to return to is that use makes meaning. Saying it and repeating it makes something true: political discourse and historical narratives like patterns. Patterns are safe. And the patterns become reality. The idea that meaning comes from use is a tired argument, itself, and the basis for a lot of anthropology, but it seems to hold up when confronted with fieldwork data. (But perhaps we anthros are just making that fit into our own familiar, underlying-premise box. Disciplinary existential crisis warning!) Back to the topic that started this whole fragmented musing, reporting things makes them relevant to the debate; to the voters; to the election. The media and the pundits do have power: they have the power to shape the debate. And on a larger scale, the historians have the power to shape the grand narrative. Not sure exactly the ways in which those two entities are related, but they are…maybe someone else has the energy to unpack that messy box.
Returning to the potentially obvious conclusion, meaning comes from use, and performativity. Practice proves it. Maybe.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media

Heineken attempts to insult women less, fails

The Heineken beer company somewhat recently (let’s say in the last few months, with increased air time during the holidays) began airing a commercial in the U.S. During this commercial, a young man successfully wins the favor of a young woman by ever-so-graciously offering to dance with what appears to be her older female relative. Soon after it aired, a word was changed in the commercial’s voice-over. Both versions begin with the unseen male narrator saying the following [disclaimer: I could not find a clip online, so this probably part-paraphrase]:

This is a jungle…disguised as a wedding. In it, there are two kinds of tigers.

As we hear the narrator’s monotonously baritone, semi-disinterested voice, we see a lively tent filled with people of all ages in fancy dress. There is music and drinking and general revelry, and it seems as though this party has been in full swing for a while. The camera follows a young man as he weaves through the crowd, his eyes on a particular young woman sitting at a round table.

It is the Unseen Narrator’s next utterance (he is the only one we hear throughout) that contains the word-change. As far as I can tell, the images we see on the screen do not change from one version of the commercial to the next. As Unseen Narrator says this next sentence, we see another young man approach the young woman that initial guy has his eye on. He offers her a drink and she dismisses him. Initial guy smiles and heads in for what may appropriately be described as “the kill” in this jungle-wedding universe, under the simultaneous cloaks of night, chivalry, and erected wedding tent. As all this goes before us, Unseen Narrator continues his interpretation of the scene, uttering the sentence under scrutiny:

One, who goes straight for the prey...” (at this point Inferior Tiger is being dismissed by the young woman)

“…and the other, who lets the prey come to him.”

At this point, Tiger #1 (initial guy who has crossed the wilds of the tent to reach his young female target) places two bottles of Heineken (what, you were expecting domestic?!!) on the table and invites her older female relative to dance. Young Virile Woman melts into a surprised and grateful grin, eyes ablaze in admiration. On the way to the dance floor, or possibly while engaged in semi-tandem movement that defies description, Tiger #1 steals a triumphant smile back to/at his prey. And everyone presumably lived happily ever after with Amsterdam-crafted beer (except granny/auntie, who may have eaten it mid- poorly-executed spin).

Allow me a melodramatic eye-roll. Now, I am not the only one who could (and seemingly did) rant about this commercial as it originally appeared. But I’d rather rant about both versions and the change that took place and its implications. The fact that there are two versions, the second quietly replacing the first, points to the complex conceptions that Heineken, its marketing division, its advertising firm, and American viewers have of gender relations, and the politics of negotiating them. What I find to be most interesting about this commercial is that at one point early into its run, the word “prey” was unceremoniously changed to “prize.” Same invisible, disinterested-yet-amused male narrator interpreting the scene for us. Same lovely images. Different word. But, I would argue, very similar meaning, however well it may have placated those who raised the initial fuss. Allow me to deconstruct:

In the second version (single woman=“prize”), we’re not longer just in the jungle. We’re now at a jousting match or something…in the jungle wedding. Young, attractive women are objects and goals rather than targets for mauling and eating. Great. The underlying conception of young, virile, single, conventionally attractive women remains fairly consistent. In the meantime, men are still tigers–active and in pursuit of said Young Virile Woman. In both versions, women are passive sheep over whose eyes wool may be pulled so as to get into their cotton pants. (Apologies for implosion of that half-woven textile metaphor back there.) Women remain goals in an elaborate game during which men are the players, and these men must reach these goals not directly—which would be a far too simple and inferior method, one for the inexperienced losers–but via an elaborate route that panders to the gendered goals’ uncontrollable emotions and affections toward older relatives. Relatives for whom they may feel responsible. With all of this firmly in place, how can Young Virile Woman react with anything but: Oh my stars–you’ve so graciously asked my grandma/great-aunt Norma to dance with no hidden agenda! I may swoon! What a gentleman! You must see in her the awesomeness that I do! Oh, I do! I do! After this dance, let’s ditch her, down these overpriced beers, and go fuck in the coat closet.

To be clear, this is a “reading” of the commercial for tropes and implicit meanings. I have no idea how these were produced, what the intended meanings were, what decisions were made and when, etc. All I know is that two versions were made and aired, and that one word was changed. This indicates that there were complaints to and/or a change of interpretation on the part of the company. I have no insider information, just common cultural background and vocabulary, each of which can be mined and deconstructed for meaning within particular contexts. We all (meaning primarily TV watchers in the U.S.) know the tropes, and it’s my pleasure to unearth all of them and their many sometimes-harmful implications.

Related to the idea that we share certain socio-cultural knowledge is the argument that since this is a commercial, it is designed to appeal to a certain segment of the population–hopefully a wide one–that will buy this product and increase Heineken’s profit margins. Thus, it panders to shared socio-cultural categories. That this commercial is merely reflecting back those very images and tropes and gender roles that the general U.S. population is perceived by Heineken and its marketing partners to identify with, understand and approve of. (For a great dissection of the American advertising industry and its practices, check out Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream. I’ll try to review this fully in a different post.)

These commercials and the one-word difference between them could be upheld as an acceptable version of how the TV-watching public is thought to be comfortable with presentations of courtship, masculinity, and femininity. Women are prey while men are predators, and in the ostensibly more-PC version of hegemonic gender roles, women are prizes while men are winners. The male change of gendered role is much less negative: in the first version men are portrayed as the inverse of prey: the predatory tiger. The category of predator is a negatively charged one in U.S. culture, so changing the Tiger from a predator to a sort of knight/winner is a more positively conceived cultural category that further serves to place the audience on his side. This also implicates the watchers of the commercial in the male gaze, partially erasing it from the viewer’s consciousness.

While the dichotomous gender roles are placed in different guises/categories, both versions of this highly gendered commercial put forth the idea that women don’t want to be approached directly, as equals, as people, as fellow tigers. Rather, they want to be lured under false pretenses. They want to be made to do the work–to walk right into the tiger’s den. They want to be duped like the clueless prey/prizes they are. Thanks, male gaze.

In both versions, the young, conventionally attractive female is the passive object of both tigers’ active intentions. Also in both cases, the older family member woman is used. She is a pawn in this risky game of jungle chess. And yet she is a grateful pawn–delighted at being part of the game/chase at all. She is portrayed as blindly grateful to be the ostensible object of the young tiger’s honorable attentions. Both females are powerless to resist his clever ruse. No, this Tiger #1 fellow is the winner. And both seem happy about it.

Side-gripe: why is Granny/Great-aunt Norma not the prize? That’s ageist! Plus it points back to the whole virile-young-thang category that Young Virile Woman, who is under constant pursuit by the relentless tiger knights, has been thrust in, sans personal agency. (Thanks again, male gaze.) Besides, Granny/Great-aunt Norma’s gonna have a hell of a lot more interesting things to talk about, and many more years to draw on. (Okay, well maybe just in my opinion.) And even though she is but a barely-tolerated stop on the circuitous journey to the prize, Great-aunt Norma is likewise cast in a passive, somewhat dim-witted role here. As a woman, she, too, is unable to see—or perhaps expects or even enjoys—this ridiculously complicated and misogynistic courtship ritual.

This brings me to another point I’d like to go back to: why must there be all this deception? It’s presented as more noble for a young man to approach a young woman via the guise of taking interest in her older relatives than it is to approach her directly. Even as the Unseen Narrator seems to be sharing a secret with the audience via his interpretation of the events that unfold, he does it with a wink: we recognize both the situation and its deconstruction/metaphorization. It’s presented as normal and expected that people play these games; as if that were the Right and Honorable way of going about meeting people you want to bang and courting them.

Now, it is true that we the audience have no idea what Inferior Tiger said to Young Virile Woman. Maybe he was a total cad. But we don’t get that information. All we are shown is how each tiger chose to actively pursue this passive prey/prize. And to tie this in with the above discussion of ageism, why must talking to the relatives of young women you want to bang always be about “getting-in-good” with them and their clan? That inherently cheapens whatever activity you’re doing with said relatives, which with a little reflection on the parts of both Young Virile Woman and Great-Aunt Norma, rather undermines your whole agenda, Tiger. (Not that either woman is allowed the possibility to deconstruct along with the Unseen Narrator and his audience minions, slave to the male gaze beer googles he so cunningly places over their eyes.)

Finally, the second version is arguably worse than the first with regards to its implications, as the “prize,” of course, is sexy fun times with Young Virile Woman. Maybe a relationship, but let’s not kid ourselves. If, like Inferior Tiger who was too forward, Tiger #1 has just noticed her across the crowded tent (in his pants–hey-oh!) then this is no West Side Story. Tiger #1 wants to bang her (all right, so did Romeo/Tony). Maybe that’ll be the first step in getting to know her better as a person, but in the champange-and-Heineken hazed hangover morning, they’ll both probably just shake hands awkwardly and go to their respective homes. Sure, Disinterested Unseen Narrator assures us that Young Virile Woman is ostensibly the “prey/prize,” but are we really going to let a beer-goggled-brewery and its invisible male spokesperson convince us that there is love and first sight? Gag me with a green glass bottle. This is an ad, after all–it’s all a gorgeous, and some might argue delicious, lie.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay